November 1, 2007
Relocalize: Balance Your World
by John Andrews
Forget globalization. The future is local. That’s a message that sounds strange after years of hearing globalization proponents tout globalization as an irresistible economic trend. But a growing number of people in Massachusetts have become convinced that our economic well-being, and perhaps our political freedom as well, depends upon creating vibrant local economies that are less dependent upon global markets and distant owners. They believe that the wealth of a community hinges upon circulating wealth within a community rather than attracting capital from outside. The key to prosperity – they say – is relocalization.
At a recent workshop in Northampton, over 200 people met to hear about relocalization efforts in the Pioneer Valley. Speakers described how a community of small, locally based businesses could reinforce each other and thrive by their ability to connect rather than to exploit. A success story of globalization is the big-box store selling goods made in China, putting local competitors out of business, and sending profits back to a distant corporate headquarters. In contrast, the relocalizers want to see smaller businesses, emphasizing locally produced products, working cooperatively with other local enterprises, and putting profits in the hands of an owner who lives in the community. Whereas the big-box stores sacrifice everything for growth, the relocalized businesses emphasize being the right size. It sounds strange at first. Then suddenly, it seems obvious.
Relocalization may be inevitable as the economy adapts to the increases in oil prices produced by the “peak oil” phenomena. It is a geological fact that we have now used up half the world’s oil. The second half is more and more expensive to extract, and the increasing costs for oil means increasing costs for everything made from oil, which is considerable, including: gasoline, plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers…the list goes on and on. And relocalization may be a key tactic in the fight against global warming because it reduces the transportation of goods and people over long distances, thus reducing CO2 emissions. Currently the typical food item in the supermarket travels over 1400 miles to wind up on our table. By making better use of local organic food production, we can cut back on energy use and eat healthier food as well.
The editorial “World Out of Balance” in the October 25 Hampshire Gazette noted the many warning signs that global warming is bearing down upon us, with the unprecedented wildfires in Southern California, historic drought in the southeast that has reached alarming proportions, and even the semi-drought and water advisories in many New England regions, including Amherst and Northampton. The inaction of our national leaders in the face of all this is disturbing, but there are encouraging signs that real leadership is emerging at the local level. According to Smith College physics professor Nat Fortune “Climate change is a global problem, but a surprising amount of what has to be done to fight it involves local actions – such as implementing energy-efficient building codes, building up public transportation, and establishing energy-efficient land use patterns. Relocalization can reduce energy imports and give a boost to local businesses that install and maintain renewable energy systems.”
A study of local economies by Civic Economics revealed that a dollar spent in a local firm returned 58% more to the community than a dollar spent in a chain store. In part, this was because chain stores used less local labor and purchased fewer of their supplies locally. In the case of San Francisco, they calculated that if only ten percent of purchases could be switched from chains to local businesses, over 1300 new jobs would be created.
Relocalization also pays dividends in terms of the vitality of civic life in a community. Locally owned businesses tend to be more engaged with community life. They donate more to local charities. And they are more willing to adapt their operations to meet local needs. Globalized businesses are notorious for playing one community against another, demanding tax breaks or relaxed environmental standards as the price for not moving away. In contrast, localized businesses tend to have a long term commitment to the community, and strive to be recognized as a valued part of the fabric of the community.
As a result of the Northampton workshop, a number of local citizens have joined together to launch the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project. One purpose of the Project is to educate consumers on the importance of supporting local businesses. Another is to work with municipalities, local businesses, and nonprofit organizations to strengthen local economies and promote tax and regulatory policies that nurture local enterprises.
Can we really build a locally rooted, human-sized economy in which we deal face-to-face with the people from whom we purchase, becoming less vulnerable to wars in distant oil fields and to collapsing financial markets? It’s the way the economy operated before cheap oil. It may be the way we will operate in the future as oil prices soar. Relocalization may be the answer to the economic blackmail of transnational corporations and the prevailing sense of powerlessness and anxiety that attend discussions of global economic competition. Relocalization could be the way to real economic security. And that would be something worth striving for.
John Andrews is president of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities. More information on relocalization can be found on the MCHC website, http://www.masschc.org .